A skeptic’s cosmic quest for a reason to believe in astrology
I say this because I want to make it clear that what you’re about to read is not an attempt to attack people who hold beliefs different than my own. Not only do I count many, many people who believe in astrology as dear friends and loved ones, but I also happen to agree with them at the most fundamental level.
I’ve looked at this thing a million different ways, and I still can’t get my head around the notion that the planets are doing some kind of cosmic dance that eerily mirrors the fact that I just stepped in cat poop.
People get into astrology because they feel there’s something more to existence than the “material plane” (or, in less mystical terms, the world of tangible, concrete phenomena: bicycles, Paula Abdul, etc.). I’m completely on board with that. From time to time we all get little signs that there are unseen forces at work in this world: Maybe someone you haven’t heard from in three years pops into your head, and that person calls you at that exact moment; maybe you need a place to stay for six days while your house is being fumigated, and out of the blue, someone asks you to house-sit for six days. I’ve had that sort of thing happen enough times to know damned well that there’s more to this universe than you, me and the Super Bowl.
That said, astrology itself has never made a lick of sense to me. I’ve looked at this thing a million different ways, and I still can’t get my head around the notion that the planets are doing some kind of cosmic dance that eerily mirrors the fact that I just stepped in cat poop. As for the idea that the human personality is linked to the positions of the planets at the moment of a person’s birth ... well, I think I’d have an easier time swallowing a thumbtack milkshake.
But might there be a rational argument for astrology’s validity, or at least an alternate viewpoint that will allow me to see eye-to-eye with my sky-watching friends? Keeping our minds as wide-open as possible, let’s peer heavenward and see what we can see.
The Interplanetary Oracle
“It’s not a belief system; it’s not a religion; it’s not a science. It’s a language of the archetypes that you can play with.”
Rob Brezsny, astrologer and Free Will Astrology columnist
Rob Brezsny writes the syndicated Free Will Astrology column, which appears weekly in the Alibi and more than 100 other publications. He reaches a potential 40 million readers per week. Brezsny is an intelligent, imaginative person whose writing I respect and enjoy. If anyone can give a lucid explanation of astrology, it’s him.
“I think astrology, at its best, is about opening up the imagination, opening up the possibilities, by getting you to play with visions of what’s possible,” he offers.
“It’s not a belief system; it’s not a religion; it’s not a science,” he says. “It’s a language of the archetypes that you can play with and thereby get a read on the biggest possibilities that are available to you.”
But if Brezsny sees astrology as a symbolic language, then does he or doesn’t he literally believe that the planets have a say in Earthly affairs? “There are many astrologers who don’t believe that the planets literally shower down some sort of invisible influence on people. I know that some astrologers believe that, but I would say that at this point, a majority don’t,” he says.
“The important thing is that the planets are signatures in the sky that can be read —and have been read by experts over a number of centuries—and correlated with specific tendencies in the human personality and in evolution.”
Brezsny points to a passage from what he calls “the definitive astrology book of the 21st century—probably the 20th century, too”—Richard Tarnas’ Cosmos and Psyche. In it, Tarnas compares the motions of the planets to a clock: When you look at a clock, you do so to know what time it is, but the clock doesn’t cause time. Likewise, when you’re reading the movements, configurations and relationships of the planets, you’re getting a read on the particular energy of a given moment, but the planets don’t cause that moment.
“We are in a position of overdepending on rationality, overdepending on the materialistic viewpoint that doesn’t really provide for anything in terms of higher meaning.”
Henry Seltzer, MIT-educated astrologer and TimePassages software creator
“The theory of divination is that everything reflects everything else,” Brezsny says. “So that the tea leaves at the bottom of your tea cup are an exact reflection of the nature of this moment in civilization, or the way the Tarot cards are thrown down is an exact replica, if you know how to read it, of where we are now, or probably of where you are, if you’re throwing the cards. But,” he continues, “the value of reading the heavens as opposed to tea leaves is an objectively existing thing: It’s very objective and can be traced into the distant past and the distant future.”
Brezsny adds that it’s a well-established tradition in human societies to read any number of natural signs for clues to the inner nature of things. He mentions that fellow Bay Area dweller and San Francisco Chronicle columnist Tom Stienstra makes long-term weather forecasts by analyzing natural phenomena such as the quality of red onion skins, or the thickness of the winter coats on coyotes. Brezsny also mentions that when acacia flowers are ready to bloom, members of an Australian tribe called the Yanyuwa know that the sea turtles and the dugongs (a kind of marine mammal) are getting fat and are therefore ready to be hunted.
“So they’re reading the signs of nature to make some sort of deductions about what’s to come,” he says. “And I think astrology is exactly that. There is a well mapped-out understanding of where the planets were thousands of years back and where they’ll be thousands of years into the future.”
Brezsny refers to a person’s astrological chart as “a snapshot of the archetypes at that moment.” He says that although the tradition of astrology has developed based on a person’s birth, at any particular moment, we could take this kind of snapshot of the heavens to get an idea of how the archetypes are working together to create human civilization.
“Conceivably, there could have been a tradition that developed over many centuries that involved the analysis of where the planets were at the time of conception,” the astrologer says, “but that’s a much murkier thing. It’s very easy to know when a person is born. It’s a very dramatic event. So the tradition grew up around what was the snapshot of the heavens at the moment the person was born, and over centuries, many people have devoted their life energy to trying to make empirical observations about what kind of pictures of the heavens are correlated with particular human types.”
What on Earth?
To someone who isn’t in my skin, her words might sound like one-size-fits-all mystical flattery. But the fact is that she’s describing a feeling that lives in every cell of my body.
Ladies and gentlemen, slap some moisturizer on your brains to protect against dryness, and let’s travel back to the birthplace of astrology.
Babylonian priests practiced astrology as one of two forms of divination—that is, telling the future and communicating with the unknown. The other method of divination, if you must know, was the practice of sacrificing animals and examining their livers for portents of the future.
Early astrologers gathered their data by taking note of what was happening on Earth during astronomical events. If, for example, the new moon rose in a cloudy sky just before a victory in battle, that sign was recorded as an omen of good fortune. The following excerpts from 1600 B.C.’s “Enuma Anu Enlil” (“When the Gods Anu and Enlil ...”), a series of clay tablets providing interpretations of astrological omens, give us a feel for the tone of these prognostications: “If in Nisannu [the Babylonian month corresponding to March/April in our calendar], the normal sunrise [looks] sprinkled with blood: battles”; “If in month I, the Demon with the Gaping Mouth [Cygnus] rises heliacally, for five years in Akkad at the command of Irra, there will be plague, but it will not affect cattle.”
Each of the five planets recognized by the Babylonians—Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Mercury and Mars—was linked to a god or goddess (Marduk, Ishtar, Ninurta, Nabu and Nergal, respectively). Priests believed that by watching the planets’ movements, they could learn the intentions of the corresponding deities.
So the Babylonians are thought to have created most of the signs of the zodiac presently in use. But it’s likely that the ancient Egyptians were responsible for the signs Aries and Leo (the Babylonians had seen the latter constellation as a dog rather than a lion) and possibly Gemini (an anthropomorphization of the “twin” stars Castor and Pollux).
The key players in Egyptian astrology were the sun and the so-called “Dog Star,” Sirius. It was thought that by observing the motions of these two heavenly bodies, one could predict when the river Nile would flood, thus providing the fertilizing waters upon which all life in Egypt depended.
When Egypt came under Greek rule in 332 B.C., one of the results was the advent of horoscopic astrology, a synthesis of Babylonian and Egyptian astrological systems that proposed a connection between the human disposition and the positions of the planets at the time of a person’s birth. The Greek mathematician/geographer/astronomer Ptolemy set the template for Western astrology with his Tetrabiblos (Four Books), which attempted to explain the cosmos in terms of heating, cooling, moisture and dryness. India, Europe and the Middle East soon followed Greece’s lead by adopting this horoscopic style of astrology, which is essentially the same today as it was at the time of its inception.
In spite of Ptolemy’s efforts to rationalize astrology, there is still no scientific evidence that supports its validity. Percy Seymour’s 2004 book The Scientific Proof of Astrology proposed that the movement of heavenly bodies affects the brains of unborn children by disrupting the Earth’s magnetic field. But scientists replied that even turbulent weather on the sun—the factor that most significantly affects the Earth’s field—only causes the magnetic field to waver by 1 percent or 2 percent at most. Furthermore, according to British astronomer Robert Massey, the magnetic field generated by any single item of electrical equipment—for example, a television, phone or washing machine—is far stronger than that of the Earth. Laundromancy: the divination of the future.
And no, don’t Harry Potter me with all that stuff about the moon’s gravitational pull. According to astronomer George O. Abell, a mosquito would exert a greater gravitational pull on your arm than the moon would. Yes, the ocean’s tides are higher during a full moon, but the moon only affects unbounded bodies of water (as opposed to the bounded water found in a human being), so it’s unlikely that the moon can alter our behavior by affecting our water content. No study has yet revealed a significant link between the full moon—or, for that matter, any phase of the moon—and human behavior. And contrary to myth, neither the moon nor the sun has the power to cause earthquakes.
Astrologer Henry Seltzer, creator of the astrological computer software TimePassages, holds a B.S. degree from MIT, a school known for its emphasis on scientific research. But despite his background in the hard sciences, the astrology Seltzer espouses is a synchronistic one, not a scientific one. Rather than offering a cause-and-effect explanation of astrology, he says he believes in the ancient art only because he’s seen it work time and time again.
“To me, it’s not gravity or electromagnetic radiation. I think there’s just a pattern in the sky that matches a pattern within us when we’re born,” Seltzer says.
“The gravity of the moon does influence the tides, but you know, it’s kind of hard to take the next leap,” he continues, “which is, How does a woman’s period line up so precisely with the periodicity of the moon? You can’t very well relate that to tides within the body. It’s more that there’s a symbolic level: The moon represents a female notion.”
Elaborating on the idea of a symbolic universe, Seltzer notes that the sun and the moon subtend the same angle of arc to the Earthly observer, so that when you look at an eclipse, you’re looking at the moon directly on top of the disc of the sun, and all that’s left is the little ring of the atmosphere of the sun shining around the outside edge.
“That is a marvelous and amazing coincidence, when you think of it. Why would they be so precise?” he asks. “There’s no explanation for that in terms of the rational, scientific approach. But if you look at it from a symbolic level, those are the two great symbolic representations of day and night, male and female.”
Not only does Seltzer make no apology for the lack of concrete evidence for astrology’s validity, he also says astrology is useful precisely because it defies logical explanation.
“We are in a position, in many cases, of overdepending on rationality, overdepending on the materialistic viewpoint that doesn’t really provide for the soul or provide for anything in terms of higher meaning,” he muses. “The search for meaning is so important—it really motivates what we do, how we conduct ourselves and where we find even the basis of morality. So it’s really important to have new models for spirit at this time, and I think astrology provides one.”
Well, if astrology does work, it clearly doesn’t do so through the laws of cause and effect. So let’s throw logic to the dogs and put this stuff to the test on the level where Seltzer says it checks out: empirically.
On a stormy Friday evening, I sit at a dinner table with Risa D'Angeles, founder and director of the Esoteric & Astrological Studies & Research Institute in Santa Cruz, Calif., and a small group of her students. Tonight the interviewer will become the interviewee, answering questions far more personal than anything he’s ever asked a story subject.
In spite of D’Angeles’ unpretentious attire (she greeted me at the door in a bright red, white and blue apron), the astrologer’s unwavering gaze and intense speaking manner do give her a bit of the new-age-prophetess vibe you might expect. Handing me my astrological chart, she looks me dead in the eyes as she tells me, “These are the energies that fell through the sky when you were born, entered the top of your head and created a template of energy in your body.”
Pointing to a group of symbols that appear to mean, “The headphone jack is approximately equivalent to The Artist Formerly Known As Prince,” she explains, “You have Mars conjunct north node in Aquarius. This is the symbol of astrology. You could become an astrologer, with your detailed mind, being a leader, helping people learn things and communicating.”
Something about an astrological sign that symbolizes astrology strikes me as quite funny, as though I’m standing under a low-hanging sign that says, “Danger: Low-Hanging Sign,” but I do my best to banish such thoughts from my mind as we press onward.
I soon learn that the planetoid Chiron is presently in Aries in my house of Scorpio. “Chiron is the wound, and Aries is self-identity,” D’Angeles declares. “So my question to you is, Do you have a wounded self-identity?” Now, if there’s anybody alive who would answer “no” to that question, I’d like to send his smug ass down a steep hill in a shopping cart. Hell yes, I have a wounded self-identity.
More questions follow, and soon I’m rattling off breezy tales about getting picked on as a kid and being born with my umbilical cord strangling me. The group members scan their charts for planetary correspondences to these events: “Aries rules the head, so that’s interesting”; “Scorpio is transformational, but Scorpio also can be cruelty. And death.”
Most of my chart’s assertions prove to be accurate, but they could probably apply to most anyone: “can be self-critical,” “has restricted feelings,” “needs recognition and attention,” etc. There is, however, one comment of Risa’s that makes me do a double take.
The astrologer points out my south node in the 12th House and north node in the 6th, which represent my past-life gifts and my present gifts, respectively.
“Now, you have been a leader and someone who was praised and recognized in previous lifetimes,” she tells me. “In this lifetime, you couldn’t be the king anymore. You had to come in and enter humanity, and that was the purpose of the Chiron: so that you could enter into humanity and understand their suffering, because before you were the king and didn’t have to.”
To someone who isn’t in my skin, her words might sound like one-size-fits-all mystical flattery, or perhaps a story designed to ease the pain of childhood trauma. But the fact is that she’s describing a feeling that lives in every cell of my body.
Even as pure metaphor, it expresses my deepest, most baffling frustration. Though I don’t have an opinion on whether reincarnation is real, I have to admit it has crossed my mind many, many times that this feeling might come from a previous lifetime. Has D’Angeles simply been touching on more-or-less universal emotions until she found one that hit a major nerve with me?
Maybe. But if so, it’s working.
The bad news, I’m told, is that I won’t be The Big Cheese again in this lifetime. That this go-round is about learning to serve others, not about being served. The good news is that there’s another plan for me that’s bigger and better than being a somebody. Everything I want will come to me when I’m about 50, but in the meantime, I should try to have as much fun as possible. I’ll do my best, Risa. I really will.
As I make a wild dash back to my car, the rain pours down on my head as if spilling from a giant ladle in the sky. I flash on a comment D’Angeles made when asked about the cause-and-effect mechanics of astrology: “The energy falls to Earth starting from the Big Dipper, down through the constellations, through the sun, through the planets, into the top of our heads, through our bodies, into the earth. That’s the mechanics.”
In other words, don’t look for a rational explanation of astrology.
If there’s anything that can help open skeptics’ minds toward this stuff, it’s this: Whether the planets have anything to do with our love lives or our waterskiing ability, our charts can be powerful tools for self-examination. And astrology can serve as a catalyst for deep discussions of things that matter: the dreams that drive us, the wounds every single one of us carries. If it can help people understand themselves and each other, soothe lifelong hurts, or even just get through the day, then what the hell—I believe in astrology.
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